BWW Review: GRAND HOTEL IN CONCERT at The Green Room 42
What do you do when you are given the present for which you begged, pleaded, and prayed and it isn't as good as you thought it would be? Do you choose to be grateful for even having it? Or do you let your actual feelings come out? Do you choose to be excited that you have it or do you give in to disappointment? You just do the best you can with what you got. And that's life.
When I saw the original production of Grand Hotel, I went in blind. All I knew was the legendary performances of "We'll Take a Glass Together" seen on The Tony Awards and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade during the run of that show. I had never seen the film and I didn't know the story. So, naturally, when the curtain fell on the 110-minute one-act, I was hyperventilating and could not rise from my seat. It was one of the most astonishing and memorable evenings I have ever had in a theater, and while there have been memorable evenings since, nothing can ever diminish this experience.
There were no expectations that the Actor's Fund Benefit concert version of GRAND HOTEL that was performed at The Green Room 42 last night would or could come close to matching that magic. When my bestie and I read about the evening, we determined that we would be at one of the two performances. Excited to hear that the special event was being staged in an innovative way inside of The Green Fig restaurant in the Yotel, rather than The Green Room 42 space, in which I have never seen one bad show, we were both beyond thrilled. After all, if you can't see Grand Hotel with the unforgettable Tommy Tune staging, what could be better than something new and innovative? It was, surely, going to be a very special night.
Arriving at The Yotel, my friends and I were taken by the hustle and bustle as the crackerjack staff there managed to seat throngs of people waiting to get into The Green Fig Restaurant for GRAND HOTEL and The Green Room 42 for the Eva Noblezada show. What a sweet night for The Green Room 42, having two such prestigious shows sell out. In true GR42 style, the impresario of the club, Daniel Dunlow, was looking dashing in his tux and serving as maitre d' for the evening. An accomplished performer, one expected he might make an appearance in the show (spoiler: he played Eric), one that featured many cast members from the original production on Broadway, as well as some notable replacements, such as John Schneider, who flew in from out of state to play Baron Von Gaigern, a role he played on Broadway longer than any other actor. Alongside Mr. Schneider, devotees of the play had been promised original Raffaela, the legendary Karen Akers, original General Director Preysing, Timothy Jerome, and Ken Jennings in the role of Mr. Kringelein, a role he covered on Broadway and one for which he is perfectly well suited. Other members of the original run of Grand Hotel included Jill Powell as Flaemchen, with Charles Mandrarcchia and Michael Piehl joining in, while the rest of the roles in the one-night-only performances would be filled by some up-and-coming talents like Harper Lee Andrews, Emily Elizabeth Cobb, Katie Dixon, and The Drinkwater Brothers, John and Matthew. The Green Fig Restaurant was abuzz with excitement as nearly every seat was filled with fans of the show Grand Hotel.
Unfortunately, those fans were not given the opportunity to see the show Grand Hotel. Instead what was presented to them was an underrehearsed hodgepodge of songs from the musical cobbled together by a script that included trivia, trunk songs, and music from the other musical version of the story "At The Grand," none of which was either required or desired. As fans of the show, each and every person in the room already knew the story, so the script created by the event's director (and original Grand Hotel cast member) Walter Willison was completely unnecessary, with Mr. Willison himself, as host and emcee of the evening, meticulously reading from a book when he could have, more easily and naturally, just spoken off the cuff and from the heart about this show that means so very much to him. A wonderful actor and BEAUTIFUL singer, Mr. Willison delivered a bang-up performance as Doctor Otternschlag, but the story of Grand Hotel would have been much better served, had they simply done the play Grand Hotel, which would have taken exactly ten minutes more than this concert version, which clocked in at one hour and forty minutes. Of course, that would have eliminated the opportunity for brilliant Tony Award winner Judy Kaye to sing an aria from "At The Grand" and it would have taken away Keith Crowningshield's gorgeous tenor performance of one of the recycled songs from Grand Hotel -- but it would have served the storytelling and the fans of Grand Hotel, who came to see Grand Hotel and didn't see Grand Hotel.
I am, perhaps, being a bit ungenerous. After all, we DID get to hear much of the score to the musical for which we all have so much affection, and we DID get to see two of the original Jimmys: David White and David Jackson. We DID get to hear Karen Akers in this heartbreaking role, for many last night a tear-inducing experience. Mr. Schneider was in great voice and charming as ever, indeed the cast of actors were all charming and working very hard to present a grand evening. We even got a beautiful, albeit truncated, version of The Countess and The Gigolo danced by Erin Marie and Zachary Bordonaro. We got to go, in some way, back to Grand Hotel, and maybe that should be enough.
But it isn't.
When it comes to one-night-only benefit concerts, one must be willing to give a little leeway, have a little generosity... for these things are often put together piecemeal with very little rehearsal time, and if people forget their words or don't know their lines, it's ok. And it was ok last night. In truth, the idea to stage the show inside a restaurant was a clever one, and executed pretty darn well, with the action happening around all the tables, giving the proceedings that exciting environmental theater experience -- kudos to all involved for the production values, including musical director/pianist Elliot Finkel. But when people pay premium prices for a special event, the event really needs to be worth their time and money, and where this event came up short was in delivering some kind of "Unsung Musicals" version of Grand Hotel with material that is, at best, redundant and, at worst, superfluous, when they could have simply stuck scripts in the hands of the actors and simply done the play we all went to see. Grand Hotel is written like the revolving door, with never-ending action, the singing, the music, and the dialogue all working in harmony to create a perfect flow of activity, and when you remove one of the components of that flow, it effectively stops the movement. The wit, pathos, and charm of Grand Hotel lies not in the songs, not in the dance, not in the discourse, but in all three united. In the absence of exchange between The Baron and The Bookkeeper, The Ballerina and The Companion, The General Director and The Typist, there is no sense of the friendship between the men, the devotion between the women, or the disparity between the classes. Grand Hotel is one of those rare occasions in musicals when a concert version can not fully communicate the relationships, and the key to storytelling lies, always, in the relationships. With the abridgment of the text, Grand Hotel In Concert began its journey behind the curve.
Most confusing, though, was the repeated mention that the performances were being dedicated to the late, great, much-beloved Liliane Montevecchi, of whom several oversized portraits were on display. These portraits, though, were all of Ms. Montevecchi's presence in the proceedings, since the role of Grushinskaya was abbreviated to disappointing effect, and then played by an actress who not only has absolutely no associations to the play Grand Hotel, but who was ill-equipped for the material, so much so that the song written for Ms. Montevecchi was jettisoned in favor of a lesser song, one that Sachi Parker also could not sing. There was little trace of Elizaveta throughout the evening and no trace of Liliane. It was a grave miscalculation, especially when Penny Worth, who actually played Elizaveta Grushinskya on Broadway, was a part of the proceedings, playing a few catch-all roles. The choice remains baffling in the days after.
Still, one returns to the question: do you take the gift that you got and be happy? As my companions and I left the Yotel last night, we stood on the corner of 42nd and 10th and used, repeatedly, the words "well-intentioned." And it WAS well-intentioned. It was a festive night for the dedicated performers, the money raised went to a great organization, The Actor's Fund of America, and, for two performances, fans of Grand Hotel got to hear those songs again. It is admirable that the gifted Walter Willison works so tirelessly to keep the memory of Grand Hotel alive, and I applaud him from the deepest place in my heart, as well as all of the well-intentioned people who created this evening. I might offer that Mr. Willison could be ideally suited to helm a revival of the original Tommy Tune staging of Grand Hotel, because that has only happened once on Broadway, and it is deeply and truly time for it to come back. Exactly as it was. Because it was perfect. Exactly as it was.
For information on The Actor's Fund of America please visit their Website
For information on The Green Room 42's performance calendar please visit their Website
Photos by Stephen Mosher